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Remembering Eugene Whelan

Ronald Reagan gets credit for winning the cold war with the former Soviet Union, but Eugene Whelan arguably played a role.

Whelan was prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s agriculture minister for 12 years beginning in 1972, except for the nine months Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives held office in 1979. He died last week at age 88.

In May 1983 Whelan hosted Mikhail Gorbachev, then Soviet Union’s agriculture minister, during a 10-day visit to Canada. It was Gorbachev’s only major foreign visit before becoming the leader of the Soviet Union, which under his watch, collapsed.

Many historians say the “evil empire” crumbled because it ran out of money trying to keep up with Reagan’s arms spending. But others, including former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien say Whelan planted the seed of democracy during Gorbachev’s Canadian trip.

In his book Whelan, written by Whelan and Rick Archbold, Whelan wrote that Gorbachev could see the virtues of the Canadian system and was impressed with the productivity of Canadian farmers.

Whelan told Gorbachev the Soviet Union would never feed itself so long as farms were state controlled.

“Of course, if you adopt our system, you’d never have to buy anything from Canada anymore,” Whelan said. “I tell our farmers to pray for your system all the time.”

Canadian Press described Whelan as “folksy,” CBC said he was “flamboyant.” I’d say he was “one of a kind.”

Eugene Whelan was a big, bull-in-the-china-shop sort a guy with a deep voice and unpolished, plain speaking style.

I’ll never forget chasing him for an interview at the Carman Fair in 1980 where he said he was pleased to be at the “101th Carman Fair, instead of the 101st.

When I was farm director at CISV radio, Whelan phoned several times close to Christmas offering an interview if I’d let him wish farmers a Merry Christmas. And I did.

Whelan, who grew up on a farm near Windsor, Ont., was a strong advocate for farmers.

One of his early opponents was Beryl Plumptre who headed the federal government’s Food Prices Review Board, set up after the 1972 election to counter food inflation.

Pumptre attacked supply management marketing boards; Whelan not only defended them, but also oversaw their expansion.

The Western Grain Stabilization Act was established under Whelan. It wasn’t perfect but was amazingly simple compared to today’s AgriStability program. He also extended interest-free cash advances in Western Canada to include non-wheat board grains.

The green Stetson that became Whelan’s trademark has a Manitoba connection. It was presented to him in 1974 by the organizers of the Swan River Agricultural Fair and Exhibition in Swan River. Green stands for charity, fertility, growth, all good things in life and the Irish, Whelan said.

Whelan attended hundreds of farm meetings across the country, many of them in very small places including, Miami, Manitoba.

A Conservative opposition MP criticized Whelan in the House of Commons for using taxpayer money to fly to Miami. It made headlines, but it wasn’t until a couple of days later that a reporter asked Whelan what he had to say about flying to Miami. Whelan replied: “It was cold as hell the day I was there… and when I left the next day it was 40 below.”

The reporter said it never gets that cold in Florida.

“Whoever said anything about Florida?” Whelan said. “I’m talking about Miami, Manitoba.”

Whelan had been there to address the Manitoba Corn Growers Association.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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